In a stormy Hawaiian sky in July 2017, streaks of red and blue lightning seemed to meet above a bed of white light.
Cameras on the Gemini North telescope at the Gemini Observatory in Mauna Kea snapped a stunning picture of the multi-colored light show. The National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) released the photo on Wednesday as its “image of the week”.
The lightning in the image “appears so otherworldly that it looks like it must be a special effect,” NOIRLab said. It also published a zoomable version.
These colorful lightning phenomena are aptly known as red sprites and blue jets. They’re extremely tricky to capture on camera: The flashes last just tenths of a second and can be hard to see from the ground, since they’re generally obscured by thunderstorm clouds.
According to Peter Michaud, the education and engagement manager for the NOIRLab, astronomers in nearby Hilo use the telescope’s cameras to remotely keep track of bad weather brewing near the observatory. The camera system takes a photo of the sky every 30 seconds.
“We’ve seen a few other instances of similar phenomena, but that was by the best example of a lightning sprite in the upper atmosphere,” he told Insider.
Red, white, and blue
Regular white lightning is different from sprites and jets in several key ways. Whereas regular lightning shoots between electrically charged air, clouds, and the ground during storms, sprites and jets start in different places in the sky, and move toward space. Their distinctive hues also set them apart.
Red sprites are ultrafast bursts of electricity that crackle through the upper regions of the atmosphere – between 37 and 80 km (23 and 49 miles) up in the sky – and move spaceward. Some sprites are jellyfish-shaped, while others, like the one in the Gemini Observatory image, are vertical columns of red light with tendrils snaking down. These are called carrot sprites.